The Champions’ league returned to our screens with a bang on Valentine’s Day, after the Winter break. The knock-out stages began with the first-legs of the last 16 ties, as the best clubs in Europe entered the home straight in the race to be crowned Champions’ League winners for 2011/12. Four matches took place over Tuesday and Wednesday nights, this is a short round-up of all the action.
Barcelona’s defence of the title took them to Germany to face Bayer Leverkusen for a match that they were highly fancied to win. The Catalan giants, dominated the first-half, but had to wait until the 41st minute before taking the lead, Alexis Sanchez with a neat finish. The Germans, who’d shown little attacking intent before the interval, were on level terms shortly after it; Kadlec with a headed goal after great work from Corluka. Three minutes later however, some hesitant goal-keeping allowed Alexis to slip Barcelona back in front, the Chilean finishing confidently. Leverkusen rallied and were unlucky not to equalise, Castro seeing Valdes brilliantly tip his shot on to the post. Both sides had chances to score again, before Messi added a crucial third for the Catalans in the 88th minute, bursting into the box to finish Dani Alves’ cross. That goal gave Messi the record for most Champions’ League goals in the knock-out phase, and, more importantly for Barca, all but sealed their progression to the quarter-finals. Leverkusen played well on the night, and were a little unfortunate to concede so late on, but they now have the proverbial mountain to climb.
In Tueday’s other encounter, this year’s surprise package, Apoel Nicosia, travelled to France to take on Lyon. Apoel have stunned pundits with their advancement to the knock-out phase and the Cypriots weren’t about to lie down and let Lyon roll over them. Apoel made the trip with a defensive game-plan, to frustrate Lyon and maintain a foothold in the two legged tie, and, for the most part it worked. It took the French side until the 26th minute for their first meaningful shot at goal, Bastos’ effort deflected narrowly over. After almost an hour of total frustration, Lyon finally got the breakthrough in the 58th minute, Lacazette’s deflected strike finding the far corner. Following the goal, the match reverted to a similar pattern, Apoel hung in, without offering anything in the way of an attacking threat, Lyon, for all their possession, created little. 1-0 the final score, the tie, delicately poised for the return leg.
Arsenal travelled to the San Siro to take on AC Milan on Wednesday evening, looking to kick start their season with victory in a stadium that has been a happy hunting ground in previous years for the Gunners. Milan, however, had other ideas, and took the lead in the 15th minute, Kevin Prinze Boateng lashing a terrific volley in off the underside of the bar. Milan’s quality up top was exposing Arsenal’s back four, and, on 38 minutes, great work by Ibrahimovic set up Robinho to head in Milan’s second. Milan scored again, soon after the break, Robinho taking advantage of a slip by Vermaelen, to rifle a shot into Sczczesny’s bottom right hand corner. Arsenal had offered little in the way of quality in
any area of the pitch, especially going forward, and it wasn’t until they went 3-0 down that they managed to get a few efforts on target, Van Persie with three half-chances that, at least, tested Abiatti. Arsenal’s misery was completed ten minutes from time, when Johann Djourou, a second half substitute, hauled down Ibrahimovic in the box. A clear penalty, which the Swede, who’s scored in every Champions’ League game this season, buried low down to Sczczesny’s right. 4-0 Milan and it could have been 8-0 in truth; Arsenal are, barring a miracle, out!
Finally we take a trip to the arctic conditions of St. Petersburg, where Benfica took on Zenith and the temperature, pitch-side, was -10C. Zenith’s iconic goalkeeper Malafeev was missing through injury, so they handed a Champions’ League debut to Yuri Zhevnov. Unfortunately for him, he had an awful game, handing Benfica the lead and allowing them to equalise, through two basic handling errors. Luckily for him, Zenith played some good stuff, Roman Shirokov equalised for them with a beautifully placed volley, after Maxi Pereira had seized on Zhevnov’s error to put Benfica 0-1 up. Sergei Semak put the home side in front with an impudent back-heel shortly after half time, however another Zhevnov mistake allowed Cardozo to equalise from close range. Just seconds after the re-start, lax defending, and comical goal-keeping at the other end allowed Shirokov to put Zenith back in front, slamming the ball home from a tight angle. 3-2 the final score, Zenith just favourites to go through, but they’ll need to score in Portugal.